Monday, August 12, 2013

Godless Dogma

PZ Myers, The Happy Atheist

With this title, I expected perhaps somebody enjoying a half-drunken night of sacred cow-tipping, somebody more like Billy Connolly, Dave Barry, or John Cleese perhaps. But this guy isn’t remotely happy. He’s chastising everybody who ever raised his hackles, an apparently long list (though he’s squishy with actual names). I once sat beside a guy excoriating his ex-wives at a bar. Myers reminds me of that.

In his first chapter, Myers promises not to regurgitate “the common atheist line” and claims that, confronted with religious absurdities, he has only one reasonable reaction: “I have to laugh.” These pledges don’t even reach page thirty before he starts painting everybody with one broad brush, and reciting laundry lists of grievances. Even his grievances have a numbingly familiar timbre. C’mon, PZ, don’t just paraphrase Richard Dawkins!

Myers seemingly promises one book and delivers another. He offers an irreverent, playful critique of America’s facile religious discourse, something even many True Believers would welcome today. But once you start reading, Myers repeatedly works himself into demonstrative indignation and starts reciting predictable adjectives about how awful theists, particularly Christians, really are. He doesn’t distinguish moderate theists from outliers, nor respect his opposition enough to even lob new or innovative accusations.

Around the one-third mark, I realized Myers doesn’t have many proper nouns in most essays. Myers confronts a rolling panoply of opponents, mostly vague (“Christians say...” or “Some have accused me...”). Sometimes he names his opponent, like British religious writer Karen Armstrong or “burn-a-Koran” nut Terry Jones. But in most of his thirty-four short essays, he rails against abstract, nebulous foes making weird anti-intellectual statements.

The only opponent he quotes at any length is Albert Mohler, President of the Southern Baptist Conference. He cites Bible verses out of context, a technique beloved by atheists and evangelicals alike to make the Bible say something it doesn’t say. He offers artfully trimmed excerpts from blog comments and e-mails he received while trying to inflame controversy. (If you do something provocative to bait religious nuts, can you really claim victory because religious nuts act provoked?)

But overall, Myers doesn’t quote those he refutes. He presents straw-man arguments about some conveniently nameless theist, or he caricatures specific opponents’ beliefs. It’s like watching Fox News misrepresent the Democratic Party, or hearing Fred Phelps mock gays and secularists. Audiences wonder: why would anybody believe such claptrap? Reality replies, nobody really believes that burlesque. Nobody worth your energy, anyway.

Therein lies the trap. If you don’t know your opponents, you needn’t address them where they are now. Myers makes the same mistake as evangelists like Bob Larson and Brother Jed, drawing sweeping conclusions about people he hasn’t met and understands in only one context. These conclusions justify long, rambling invectives claiming that those who disagree with him are “irrational,” “infantile,” “smug,” or his particular favorite, “stupid.” After the first chapter, he makes no distinctions, applying his labels with giddy abandon.

I blame the format. These essays began life as entries on Myers’ blog, where intrepid readers can find many of them verbatim. But Internet writing rewards short attention spans, surface-level reading, and pat answers. Blogs, including this one, attract audiences that share the author’s core suppositions, and reward writing that whips ideological fellow-travelers into high dudgeon. They don’t much encourage deep investigation or intellectual diversity.

Myers repeatedly starts to address some important topic, something deserving of his time, that theists have historically elided or failed to explicate. Sometimes, he raises questions I’ve seen in authors as disparate as Albert Camus, Isaac Asimov, and Cynthia Ozick; other times, his questions come seemingly from nowhere and take me by surprise. I nod vigorously, thinking: yes, this will surely justify this entire book.

Then Myers consistently stops. Perhaps he gets tired. Perhaps he thinks his point proven by dint of having raised it. More likely, because he’s courting an Internet audience that already agrees with him, the topic requires no further unpacking. But I want more from a book! I want the ramifications, the caveats, the full extension of Myers’ argument. Myers makes intriguing promises, but I just feel ripped off.

Science and philosophy give us good reasons to treat atheism seriously. Christopher Hitchens, Bertrand Russell, and Sigmund Freud offer very good criticisms that theists have preponderantly failed to answer. They made fun, enlightening reading, too. But Myers resembles the Archie Bunker of atheist dogma, berating anybody who doesn’t agree and claiming victory when they stop fighting. This atheist isn’t happy, and he isn’t enlightening either.

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